Next weekend the local Vietnamese community will celebrate Tet, the lunar new year, which in 2012 marks the year of the dragon. Like any good holiday party, this one entails lots and lots of food.
There are many church-based Tet celebrations around the area, but by far the largest is organized by Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, a centerpiece of community life in Village de l'Est, a largely Vietnamese neighborhood in eastern New Orleans. The party is a regional draw, with typical attendance of between 20,000 and 25,000 people during its three-day run.
The celebration starts at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, with the traditional dragon dance and other ceremonies. Then everyone gets down to business eating and drinking.
The festival grounds around the church are lined with huge tents where you’ll find different crews preparing Vietnamese staples like pho (beef and noodle soup), bun (fresh noodle salad), spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches and festival treats like fried bananas. The tents are filled with long communal tables and a great deal of Heineken is dispatched around them as people slurp, sip and munch. Altogether, it amounts to a de facto Vietnamese food festival.
“All of the people running the tents and cooking are volunteers who want to help their parish, so they all have different recipes. That means you can try different ones from tent to tent,” says Lac Nguyen, one of the event coordinators.
The three-day party features bands, fashion and beauty shows, tents packed with crafts and art, many games of chance and of course vending booths for festival knickknacks (no one attending can possibly escape being sprayed with silly string by the roving packs of gleeful kids).
The entire weekend is a benefit for Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, funding its various community programs. Though this Catholic church community is predominantly Vietnamese, today it also includes many Latinos.
“After Katrina, a lot of Latino people are living here now,” says Nguyen. “They rebuilt the city and many of them settled in the east in our area. A lot of them are Catholics, so the parish opened its arms to welcome them.”
The church offers a Spanish-language mass on Sundays, and for the past few years it’s been using the annual Tet celebration to bring more Latino families into the neighborhood fold too. So this year Latino parishioners will also be preparing tacos, burritos and Mexican-style goat stew, alongside the noodles, fish sauces and exotic eats of their neighbors.
“It’s good for us too, because you know kids eat too much Taco Bell and this shows them that that’s not what Latino food is all about,” Nguyen says.
Admission and parking are free. Bring cash for the food, games and concessions.
Mary Queen of Vietnam Church
14001 Dwyer Blvd., New Orleans
Friday: 6:30 pm to 11pm
Saturday: noon to 11 p.m.
Sunday: noon to 10pm